The Coronavirus pandemic will change how the world works. It will bring new drivers of both cooperation and conflict. Even more fundamentally, the outbreak will impact the most basic social interactions. These changes will make the world more dangerous – but in ways that are more complex than most observers describe.
In the political sphere, new drivers will promote cooperation and discord. The international community is undergoing a shared and deep shock, one that is more personal than any global crisis during the past 100 years. History and logic both support the claim that severe shocks cause peace.
The Concert of Europe formed in 1815 in reaction to the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars. It was a rare example of great power cooperation – including powers with very different domestic political systems. The United Nations was formed in 1945 after the Second Word War. Hopefully this pandemic will not compare in mortality to those episodes, but it will produce a shock to the international system. Also, while leaders are now looking inward, as the crisis becomes more severe elites will likely start looking abroad for help – simply for lack of alternatives. Lastly, the outbreak will create a high degree of cooperation on health policy.
In many of today’s discussions about the influence of the coronavirus, the idea can be heard that the destructiveness of the coronavirus also contains what can be called creative destruction. Every crisis breaks the old and clears the way for the new, paving the way for the solidarity and cooperation of people.
But alongside these trends new drivers of conflict will arise. So far, the international community is not cooperating on a response. The system is unprepared to do so, as both superpowers are preoccupied. The US is in retrenchment, while China is on the rise but not yet willing to provide public goods. The coronavirus pandemic also strengthens previously ongoing and profound drivers of conflict. Deglobalization was already under way because of US-China tension. Globalization is a key diver of both prosperity and peace. Recent tensions between Washington and Beijing have led already to a separation of the technology sectors. The pandemic will drive decoupling further as all nations will have to create jobs immediately at home. Incentives will be on domestic stimulus, not on trade.
Finally, nationalism and populism will grow stronger. The coronavirus will increase poverty and suffering. Poor, angry populations create fertile ground for populist movements.
Turning to the effect of the pandemic directly on social interaction, the pillars of societal interaction will rattle. They are temporarily gone. Meetings, voting, and debates are not occurring because they are too dangerous to occur during the crisis. That means even the most basic forms of politics are on hold, which will weaken all nations.
Political life as with all else has gone virtual. It is “working” surprisingly well. Servers and computers are ready for this unprecedented demand.
But the cost of going virtual is very large. For diplomats, it is harder to follow up a meeting, and all interactions are less personal. Information leaks are now more likely, as both governments and non-state actors will try to take advantage of how the world now communicates.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.